Welcome!

I am a sixth-year PhD Candidate in the astronomy department at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD). I am interested in high-energy astrophysics and primarily focus on multiwavelength observations of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) but I also have worked on electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves (GWs) and X-ray and gamma-ray counterparts to fast radio bursts (FRBs). My PhD advisor is Dr. Brad Cenko at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

I completed my Bachelor's degree in Physics at West Virginia University where I worked with Prof. Loren Anderson on quantifying the clustering of star-forming regions within our Galaxy. While in undergrad I worked with Dr. Paul Green on modeling quasar emission as a damped random walk during a research experience for undergrads (REU) program at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I also completed a summer internship researching radio pulsars through the GROWTH-PIRE Program with Dr. Jason Hessels at the Anton Pannekoek Institue in Amersterdam, Netherlands.

In graduate school I have been priviledged to collarborate on several different projects spanning multiple groups. My master's thesis on high-energy counterparts to FRBs consisted of work I did with the GRB groups at both NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I spent several weeks at Caltech helping with the commissioning of the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) on Mount Palomar. During this time I took on multiple projects working directly under the head engineer and project scientists to monitor the quality of the preliminary raw optical data. After ZTF's first look I joined the multimessenger science working group to help create automated pipelines to process the large amount of optical data gathered during our follow-up of GW events. I now work primarily with Dr. Brad Cenko, Prof. Stuart Vogel (UMD), and Dr. Geoff Ryan (UMD/NASA GSFC) on multiwavelength observations and MCMC modeling of the afterglows of long GRBs detected by the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT). My observational data reduction experience includes the Very Large Array (VLA), Fermi LAT, Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM), Swift X-ray Telescope (XRT), Swift Burst Alert Telescope (BAT), and ZTF.

The header above is an incredible photo taken by Nicholas Buer in Northern Chile and highlighted by Astronomy Picture of the Day. Within the image one can see the Milky Way arch, the Moon, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, red airglow near the horizon, and the lights of several towns in the distance.

Research

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 research here, which is followed by highlights of some of my more recent projects:

  • Modeling Relativistic Jets and GRB Afterglows
  • Progenitors of Bright Long GRBs seen by Fermi
  • Constraining the Burst Energy and Densities of Long GRBs
  • Electromagnetic Counterparts to Gravitational Waves
  • Optical Searches for Kilonovae with ZTF
  • High-Energy Counterparts to Fast Radio Bursts

GRB 160625B

Long GRBs are some of the most explosive events in the Universe and are associated with the deaths of massive stars - although the details of how they are produced are still debated. GRB 160625B is one of the most energetic long GRBs observed by the Fermi gamma-ray observatory. Because it was so bright and long-lasting this means it also has one of the richest and largest multiwavelength (radio to gamma-ray energies) datasets; thus making it an ideal candidate to perform a detailed analysis on its light curve. We use the Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) techniques of the Afterglowpy package (Ryan et. al 2020) to address several fundamental questions regarding long GRBs: What is the shape of the GRB jet? How much energy is produced by the GRB? What is the GRB central engine? And what kind of local environments are GRBs born into? The image above is a subset of the dataset overplotted with our best-fit model of a Gaussian-shaped jet.

Properties of Fermi Long GRBs

We are expanding on the results of our work with GRB 160625B by repeating the analysis on several other bright long GRBs detected by Fermi. As seen in the figure, GRBs detected by the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) are much brighter and more energetic than GRBs seen by the Swift Burst Alert Telescope (BAT). Like GRB 160625B, these LAT-detected GRBs are likely to have similarly rich multiwavelength datasets associated with them. With a larger sample of long GRBs we can begin to attempt to answer some of the fundamental questions regarding their jet shape and orgins.

Fast Radio Bursts

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are a fairly new transient phenomena only first confirmed as a true astrophysical event about a decade ago. They are extremely bright yet short pulses of radio energy. They have only recently been associated with signals at non-radio energies. This makes it very difficult to localize them to a host galaxy and to understand their origins. In Cunningham et. al (2019) we searched for high-energy counterparts to FRBs with the Swift BAT, the Fermi LAT, and the Fermi gamma-ray burst monitor (GBM) and placed upper limits on their high energy fluence. The figure above shows a light curve taken from GBM at the time of an FRB. Previously only a small sample of FRBs were known (on the order of tens of confirmed sources), but with the advent of several recent FRB-focused radio telescopes the number has grown exponentially!

CV

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

Outreach

Community outreach is very important to me. Below I've listed some of the most recent events with which I've been involved. Before moving to Maryland I was involved with the NASA-sponsored Space Public Outreach team. We visited schools and other community groups within West Virginia to give talks on various astronomy topics. I worked as 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, and taught 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 partnered with the public libraries in Anne Arundel County during the summer of 2019 to help create astronomy-based content to enrich their youth programs. Some of the events included '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 upcoming 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