MBS Program Director and Professor Dr. Joel West Announces Retirement, Celebrating 12 Years at KGI

After 12 years of serving Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), Dr. Joel West—Director of KGI’s Master of Business and Science (MBS) program and Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship— has announced his retirement. Although some considered him a “tough love” professor, his deep dedication to his students, the MBS program, and KGI is evident.

When West was hired in 2011, KGI had two degrees: an MBS and a Ph.D. Since then, the Riggs School of Applied Life Sciences was formed, and KGI has added other industry-focused masters for drug discovery, bioprocess engineering, medical device engineering, and regulatory affairs.

In the summer of 2019, West took over as MBS Program Director. Then the pandemic happened.

“2020 was a stressful year for faculty who had to scramble to convert classes to online delivery,” West said. “As program directors, we also faced uncharted territory in our responsibilities to provide students the same education and career outcomes while following KGI’s policies for keeping everyone healthy. A major challenge during the lockdown for the MBS program was helping students learn the networking skills they will need throughout their careers.”

Things largely returned to normal with in-person classes in Fall 2021.

“Overall, the incoming class of 2020 did very well—those students ended up with great jobs and had a great KGI experience,” West said. 

One accomplishment he is incredibly proud of is developing a career-first model. West works with each new MBS student to narrow their career choices to a subset of the 25 most popular careers selected by recent MBS graduates.

“Once they prioritize their most likely career choices, I help them create a research plan to confirm or disconfirm their hypothesized choices,” West said. “Our second-year students and more than 900 MBS alumni are invaluable resources, so they can quickly get answers to their questions and focus their attention on those options that offer the best fit.” 

Another success has been the summer alum speaker series. Initially, an activity within the pre-MBS summer program — which West and other MBS faculty launched in the Summer of 2019 — the speaker series has since grown to serve all KGI summer programs and a global audience beyond KGI. 

In 2023, the program (now run by the Office of Alumni Engagement) will feature 28 speakers across seven weeks. Still, as in previous years, it will allow alums to discuss their career rewards and challenges and how KGI prepared them for their careers.

Another highlight for West has been acting as a personal advisor for all the MBS students.

“It was a very time-consuming endeavor, but I had not anticipated how rewarding it would be,” West said.

“Getting to know these students individually and helping them find jobs and wrestle with challenges was one of the most meaningful experiences in my 21 years of higher education. I’ve made more friends with students in the last two years as program director than in the previous 19 years as just their teacher.”

At the same time, West has developed a reputation as a demanding professor and refers to himself as an “acquired taste.” He favors dynamic classes modeled on the Socratic dialogue, where students can engage with the material more deeply. For this scenario to work, students must attend class prepared and put in the effort.

“Professor West holds students accountable to themselves so they can accomplish their goals while simultaneously keeping them humble,” Elizabeth Robinson, MBS ’23, said. “He is a formidable professor who doesn’t hold back when sharing his opinions because he views praise as a finite resource to be delivered sparingly. I’ve appreciated Professor West’s seasoned advice and direct communication as he’s helped me become more resilient when receiving criticism, making me more confident in arguing a point, opinion, or decision.”

Anjali Vahalia, MBS ’23, concurs.

“Dr. West is the voice of reason that you need to hear but don’t always want to,” Vahalia said. “KGI was lucky to have him.”

His signature class—Applied Entrepreneurship—centers around creating a new business in the biotech industry, which students pitch to angel investors.

“It’s not intended for students wanting an easy final semester, but it provides a realistic, valuable experience for those wanting to go into entrepreneurship or consulting or work for Fortune 500 companies,” West said.

Other recent highlights include:

  • Winning KGI’s Service Award—for his contributions to the MBS program and for helping launch KGI’s new online business degree.
  • Running the IP committee.
  • Advocating for faculty governance—and Research Award, which he shared with Dr. Kiana Aran.

“It was an honor to share this award with Kiana, who is KGI’s best-funded researcher as well as a prolific entrepreneur,” West said.

Finally, he finished on a strong note with this year’s winning Team Master’s Project (TMP), where he led a team of students partnering with Kite Pharma, a subsidiary of Gilead. 

“It was a very difficult project,” West said. “But this team did an amazing job—to the point where, when they did the final presentations, people thought, ‘Wait, these are students?’ It felt like they were either professional consultants or people working inside Kite for years because of how well they understood the organization and its values.”

Dr. Steven Casper will be assuming West’s position as MBS Program Director. Although West is leaving KGI, he is still staying busy.

He will continue running Shield Pharma, a company he co-founded in 2014 with former KGI professor Mikhail Martchenko Shilman to commercialize discoveries made in Shilman’s lab into host-based therapies for deadly bacterial and viral pathogens.

West will also engage in further collaborations with existing co-authors to finish up research projects on pharma R&D consortia, the radiotherapy industry, and the semiconductor industry. Additionally, he plans to become more active in his church–he recently obtained a master’s in theology—and help his friend, an English professor, launch an undergraduate college. 

“I’m acting as the main advisor for the entrepreneurship program until he can hire somebody full-time,” West said. “Having launched two trade associations, a conference, two companies, and now a theology journal, it’s really fun to be an advisor and mentor to somebody launching a new university, which I’ve never done before.”

This dedication to mentorship has not gone unnoticed by his students.

“When you meet Joel West, you may wonder why KGI hired him,” Justin J. Mathew, MBS ’22, said. “With an eccentric sense of humor, you may think he’s a cranky old man that wants to see you fail. However, over time, most realize he truly cares about the school and each student’s success. 

“With a passion for strategy and innovation, Joel has been the steward to the central philosophy of the MBS program but also to KGI. To take risks, be ethical, and dream. If you could name a professor that changed my life, helped me prepare for the real world, laughed a little when things got awful, and held professionalism through it all, it was Joel. Not only has he been my professor and MBS director, but he has also become a very close friend over time.”