I am a fourth-year graduate student in the astronomy department at UMD. I am interested in high-energy astrophysics including gamma-ray bursts, electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves, and X-ray and gamma-ray counterparts to fast radio bursts. I am currently working with Dr. Brad Cenko at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.


My main area of interest is time-domain astronomy. I like to study things that go bang in the night! I've summarized a list of my current research here, which is followed by a more detailed explanation of the main topics:

  • Constraining the Energy Budgets of Long GRBs
  • Progenitors of Bright Long GRBs seen by Fermi
  • Studying Long GRB Host Galaxies
  • Electromagnetic Counterparts to Gravitational Waves
  • Optical Properties of Kilonovae
  • High-Energy Counterparts to Fast Radio Bursts

Gamma-ray Bursts

Gamma-ray bursts (or GRBs) are some of the brightest explosions known to exist. They are the result of either the catastrophic merger of a neutron star binary (i.e., a short GRB) or the collapse of a massive star at the end of its life (i.e., long GRBs). GRBs emit an initial burst of prompt high-energy gamma-ray and X-ray emission and then progress to a longer-lived afterglow phase which can be observed across the electromagnetic spectrum. A great video summary on GRBs can be found here. (Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Gravitational Waves and Kilonovae

Gravitational waves (GW) are disruptions in the fabric of spacetime itself. GW affect the path of light itself as it travels through this disruption. In the example to the left it is the background light of the distant stars which is distorted. GW are emitted when two compact objects in a binary merge. The compact objects can be two black holes (as shown in the example), or some combination of black holes, neutron stars, or even white dwarfs. The merger of two neutron stars results in a kilonova. Kilonovae were only first discovered in August 2017 and are thought to produce the majority of heavy elements in the Universe. (Image Credit: SXS Collaboration)

Fast Radio Bursts

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are a new transient phenomena only first discovered a decade ago. They are extremely bright yet short pulses of radio energy. What makes them mysterious is that, so far, they are only observed at radio wavelengths. This makes it very difficult to localize them to a host galaxy and to understand their origins. Previously only a small sample of FRBs were known (on the order of tens of confirmed sources), but with the advent of the CHIME telescope we are entering a new era where tens of new FRBs may be discovered every day! For a summary of FRBs, click here. (Image Credit: Parkes Observatory)


My CV can be viewed here, where you will find a detailed list of my research history, publications, talks, poster presentations, and conferences attended.


Community outreach is very important to me. Below I've listed some of the most recent events with which I've been involved. Before coming to Maryland I was involved with the NASA-sponsored Space Public Outreach team. We visited schools and other community groups within WV and gave talks on various astronomy topics. I also was the science 'teacher' for the WV 4H summer camps. During the summer I explained how GPS systems work through geocaching, had students build miniature water rockets, as well as teach general astronomy concepts among other things. I am always interested in new opportunities so please contact me if you have any events at which you would like me to speak or help out!

Anne Arundel County Public Libraries

I am currently partnering with the public libraries in Anne Arundel County to help create astronomy-based content to enrich their youth programs. Events planned for summer 2019 include 'Storytime under the Stars' where we expose young children to telescopes and the moon/stars, 'Explosions from Space' where we teach teens about gamma-ray bursts, and 'Phases of the Moon and the Seasons' where we address some common misconceptions about these topics (Anne Arundel County Libraries STEM Outreach Website).

K-12 Classrooms

I love visiting K-12 classrooms in the local area and speaking about either general astronomy or my specific research on gamma-ray bursts. In the past I was a part of the Project Astro program based out of Baltimore, MD. I believe it is important to help break down some of the perceived barriers around astronomy and show students that anyone, regardless of race or gender, can be successful at a career focusing on space or science in general.

Nerd Nite DC

Nerd Nite is a ~monthly event held at a bar in DC focusing on highlighting interesting 'nerdy' research in the area and explaining it in a way that is silly and fun yet also easily digestible by the general public. I gave a talk on the history of gamma-ray bursts and broke down why the Fermi/LIGO joint event was so significant (See current Nerd Nite events here).

Contact Me

If you have questions about my research, are interested in collaborating on a project, or have an outreach event to share please email me! --> vcunning 'at' astro 'dot' umd 'dot' edu