For years, all she wanted to do was play the violin. Get the notes perfect. Make the music sound great. Since high school, she had put in at least three hours of practice a day.

Her name was Barbara Sorenson then. As an undergraduate at Radcliffe College, she was the concertmaster in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. In September of her junior year, she met the First Horn, Jerry Hulka. When he introduced himself, the two were scheduled to perform the Brahms Horn Trio-a piece of chamber music for the violin, French horn, and piano.

“We started rehearsing together,” he says, “and that was my excuse to have a date with her. She was a gorgeous blond and a terrific violinist. I wanted to meet the gal who had all that going for her.”

They’ve played the Brahms Horn Trio together many times since. Jerry Hulka, now professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology, says, “As a piece of music, the Brahms Trio is great. But as an event in our lives, it’s spectacular.”

Sorenson was devoted to her music and went on to Juilliard for her master’s degree. It was there, though, that she started thinking seriously about a career. She still loved playing the violin. But she decided she wanted something else.

“I felt like something was missing,” she says. “I got enthralled with the idea of learning more about the human body and the causes of disease. It seemed like a very exciting idea.” It was 1953, and becoming a doctor wasn’t something many women thought about. But that French horn player she had been dating was in med school at Columbia, and on visits there Sorenson saw that there were some women. Not a lot, but some.

She started taking a few premed classes at Columbia-chemistry, physics, biology. “I thought, hey, I like this,” she says. She did the premed work at night while studying music during the day. The combination of the two made her very happy. While all this was happening, she also married Jerry Hulka. She applied to three medical schools and was accepted to Columbia, her first choice.

After earning her M.D., Barbara Hulka stayed on and earned a master’s of public health. “At the time, there was a lot of interest in esoteric diseases, rare phenomena,” she says. “But I was much more interested in common diseases and what causes them-not just the treatment. So epidemiology seemed to fit.”

Barbara came to Carolina in 1967, when Jerry joined the faculty in obstetrics and gynecology. “That was the era of the trailing spouse,” Barbara says with a laugh. She met with John Cassel, then chair of epidemiology, and accepted an assistant professor position.

Many of the current faculty are glad she did. “Her way of talking with people is very human,” says David Savitz, the current chair of epidemiology. Savitz was the first faculty member Hulka recruited when she was department chair, from 1983 to 1993. He also lives across the street from her. “She’s the same person whether she’s chairing an administrative meeting, discussing scholarly issues, or walking around our neighborhood,” he says. “I think the work is very much a part of who she is. It’s not like there’s a human being there and then there’s a professor there. It’s just, that’s Barbara.”

Hulka left her mark as chair in other ways too. She was one of the first people to work to integrate molecular biology into the field of epidemiology. Traditional epidemiology emphasizes analyzing medical records and surveys for disease prevalence and causes. But today, Hulka explains, “we’re seeing many more studies where we not only interview people, but we may draw blood, for example, then do genetic studies of their DNA.” Today the epidemiology department includes a molecular biology lab, a genotyping lab, and an immunohistochemistry lab. These labs support the department’s cancer epidemiology research, much of which is done in collaboration with Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Hulka played a big role in establishing that collaboration.

Meanwhile Hulka also was doing her own research on the relationship between hormones and breast cancer. “I’d allocate a certain number of hours-say three hours in the morning-to my research, and then have the rest of the day for administrative duties and teaching,” she says. If she hadn’t set aside that time for research, her responsibilities as chair could have consumed her whole day. “I’ve learned in life that time is really what constrains us,” Hulka says. “So some tasks you put a limit on.”

In addition to their busy careers (Jerry invented the Hulka clip-a sterilization procedure and device), the Hulkas raised three children. At home, like at work, setting priorities was important. “As soon as we came home,” Jerry says, “we didn’t do work-we talked with the kids. The time we had with them was sometimes short, but it was a very intense time.” Barbara says, “I won’t say I never brought work home, but in general, I’d rather come in to the office on Saturday morning than bring the work home.”

When their children were growing up, there were two important times of the day-breakfast and dinner. Barbara was in charge of the morning rush. “It took a well-run machine to get everyone ready and out of the house by 7:30,” Jerry says. “She did it beautifully.”

Hulka has also kept her cool while serving on several national health panels. While working on a recent National Science Panel on silicone breast implants, she and the three other members reached a conclusion that was unpopular with some. They could find no significant relationship between the implants and systemic-whole body-disease.

Hulka had anticipated that she’d spend maybe three hours a week on that panel, but she ended up devoting a lot more-about a third of her working time for two years. She and the other panel members pored over studies, analyzed data, explained painstaking details during depositions. “She’s very solid and gets it down once and gets it down right,” Jerry Hulka says. “She makes very few fuzzy mistakes.”

Hulka doesn’t regret the experience. “I hope it will help set a new precedent for scientific experts providing evidence on complex medical and public health issues,” she says. Unlike the “expert witnesses” paid by one side or the other, this panel was appointed and paid by the federal judiciary, to serve as impartial advisers.

The panel and other duties took up so much of Hulka’s time that she stopped playing the violin for two years. But this January, as she began working toward semi-retirement, she returned to it, once again playing with the Village Orchestra, an eclectic group of musicians directed by Carolina music professor Don Oehler.

“I’m starting to develop these calluses on my fingers and a sore on my chin again. The mark of a string player,” Hulka says, smiling. “But it makes me very happy. Music is instantaneous. When I’m playing, my mind is always going forward.