In Uganda, where there is only one doctor for every 12,500 people, Helen Byakwaga is sure to stand out.

The 29-year-old Ugandan is already a medical doctor, now she is undertaking her PhD through UNSW, to help fight the HIV epidemic in her country.

She has just been given the inaugural Peter McDonald scholarship* to continue her studies in Australia. She was presented with a certificate at a recent event, attended by the High Commissioner for Uganda, Dr James Lukabyo.

While Uganda has fared better than many of its African neighbours in terms of containing the problem, HIV rates still hover around 6 percent.

Dr Byakwaga has been touched by the problem personally - and professionally.

She has already treated HIV patients for several years in the capital, Kampala, but wanted to become more involved in research to help improve policy and ultimately, care in her country.

"The main reason I was interested in HIV is because it's such a big problem in Uganda. I have been affected because people close to me have died," said Dr Byakwaga, who is being supervised by leading HIV researchers based at UNSW's National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (NCHECR).

"That was my initial interest, but then I realised that access to treatment is poor and there's not enough research in sub-Saharan Africa. Research is important in providing information for effective practices in these countries where there are several other infections in the population and resources are limited. "

Dr Byakwaga's PhD will focus on the why some people respond well to treatment for HIV, while others do not. Dr Byakwaga is being co-supervised by the Associate Professor Sean Emery, Head, Therapeutic and Vaccine Research Program (TVRP) at NCHECR, Dr Mark Boyd, Senior Lecturer and Clinical Project Leader, Therapeutic and Vaccine Research Program at NCHECR, and Professor David Cooper, Scientia Professor of Medicine at UNSW and Director of NCHECR.

*Until recently, Professor Peter McDonald was the chair of the NCHECR scientific advisory committee.

This story also appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.